A Christian View of Funeral Customs
THE sudden, unexpected death of a loved one is especially tragic. It results in shock, followed by intense emotional pain. Watching a loved one fall asleep in death after a long and painful illness is different, but the grief and feeling of deep loss remain.
Regardless of the circumstances of a loved one’s death, the bereaved need support and comfort. A bereaved Christian may also have to face persecution from those who insist on observing unscriptural funeral customs. This is common in many countries of Africa and also in some other parts of the earth.
What will help a bereaved Christian to avoid unscriptural funeral customs? How can fellow believers be supportive in such times of trial? Answers to these questions are of concern to all who seek to please Jehovah, for “the form of worship that is clean and undefiled from the standpoint of our God and Father is this: to look after orphans and widows in their tribulation, and to keep oneself without spot from the world.”—James 1:27.
Linked by a Belief
A common factor linking many funeral customs is the belief that the dead live on in an unseen realm of the ancestors. To appease them, many mourners feel obligated to perform certain rituals. Or they fear that they will displease neighbors who believe that harm will come to the community if the rituals are not performed.
A true Christian must not give in to fear of man and participate in customs that displease God. (Proverbs 29:25; Matthew 10:28) The Bible shows that the dead are unconscious, for it says: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all . . . There is no work nor devising nor knowledge nor wisdom in Sheol, the place to which you are going.” (Ecclesiastes 9:5, 10) Therefore, Jehovah God warned his people of ancient times not to try to appease the dead or communicate with them. (Deuteronomy 14:1; 18:10-12; Isaiah 8:19, 20) These Biblical truths clash with many popular funeral customs.
What About “Sexual Cleansing”?
In some countries of central Africa, the bereaved spouse is expected to have sexual relations with a close relative of the deceased. If this is not done, it is believed that the dead one will harm the surviving family. This ritual is termed “sexual cleansing.” But the Bible defines any sexual relationship outside marriage as “fornication.” Since Christians are to “flee from fornication,” they courageously withstand this unscriptural custom.—1 Corinthians 6:18.
Consider a widow named Mercy.* When her husband died in 1989, relatives wanted her to perform sexual cleansing with a male relative. She refused, explaining that the ritual was contrary to God’s law. Frustrated, the relatives left after verbally abusing her. A month later they ransacked her home, removing the iron sheets from her roof. “Your religion can care for you,” they said.
The congregation comforted Mercy and even built her a new house. Neighbors were so impressed that some decided to participate in the project, with the chief’s Catholic wife being the first to bring grass for the roof. Mercy’s faithful conduct encouraged her children. Four of them have since made a dedication to Jehovah God, and one recently attended the Ministerial Training School.
Because of the custom of sexual cleansing, some Christians have allowed themselves to be pressured into marriage with an unbeliever. For example, one widower in his 70’s hastily married a young girl related to his deceased wife. By doing this, he could claim to have performed the sexual cleansing. However, such a course conflicts with the Bible’s counsel that Christians should marry “only in the Lord.”—1 Corinthians 7:39.
All-Night Wake Ceremonies
In many countries, mourners gather at the home of the deceased and stay awake all night. These wakes often include feasting and loud music. This is believed to appease the dead and to protect the surviving family from witchcraft. Flattering speeches may be given to gain the dead person’s favor. After a speech, the mourners may sing a religious song before another individual stands up to speak. This may go on until daybreak.*
A true Christian does not share in such all-night wake ceremonies because the Bible shows that the dead are unable to help or harm the living. (Genesis 3:19; Psalm 146:3, 4; John 11:11-14) The Scriptures condemn the practice of spiritism. (Revelation 9:21; 22:15) Yet, a Christian widow may find it difficult to prevent others from introducing spiritistic practices. They may insist on performing an all-night wake in her home. What can fellow believers do to help bereaved Christians who face this added tribulation?
Congregation elders have often been able to support a bereaved Christian family by reasoning with relatives and neighbors. After such reasoning, these individuals may agree to leave the home peacefully and to gather again for the funeral service on another day. But what if some become belligerent? Continued attempts to reason may result in violence. ‘A slave of the Lord does not need to fight, but must keep himself restrained under evil.’ (2 Timothy 2:24) So if uncooperative relatives aggressively take over, a Christian widow and her children may not be able to prevent this. But they do not participate in any false religious ceremony that takes place in their house, for they obey the Bible’s command: “Do not become unevenly yoked with unbelievers.”—2 Corinthians 6:14.
This principle also applies to the burial. Jehovah’s Witnesses do not share in singing, praying, or rituals directed by a minister of false religion. If Christians who are close family members consider it necessary to attend such a service, they do not participate.—2 Corinthians 6:17; Revelation 18:4.
Dignified Funeral Services
Funeral services conducted by Jehovah’s Witnesses do not include rituals intended to appease the dead. A Bible talk is given either at the Kingdom Hall, at the funeral parlor, at the home of the deceased, or at the graveside. The purpose of the talk is to comfort the bereaved by explaining what the Bible says about death and the hope of a resurrection. (John 11:25; Romans 5:12; 2 Peter 3:13) A song based on the Scriptures may be sung, and the service is concluded with a comforting prayer.
Recently, a funeral service such as this was conducted for one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who happened to be the youngest sister of Nelson Mandela, the president of South Africa. After the service, the president sincerely thanked the speaker. Many dignitaries and high officials were in attendance. “This is the most dignified funeral I have ever attended,” said a cabinet minister.
Are Mourning Garments Acceptable?
Jehovah’s Witnesses mourn over the death of loved ones. Like Jesus, they may shed tears. (John 11:35, 36) But they do not consider it necessary to display their grief publicly by some outward symbol. (Compare Matthew 6:16-18.) In many lands, widows are expected to put on special mourning garments to appease the dead. These garments must be worn for several months or even a year after the funeral, and their removal is the occasion for another feast.
Failure to show signs of mourning is considered an offense against the dead person. For this reason, in parts of Swaziland, tribal chiefs have driven Jehovah’s Witnesses away from their own homes and lands. However, such faithful Christians have always been cared for by their spiritual brothers living elsewhere.
The Swaziland High Court has ruled in favor of Jehovah’s Witnesses, stating that they should be allowed back to their homes and lands. In another case, a Christian widow was permitted to stay on her property after producing a letter and a tape recording in which her late husband had clearly stated that his wife should not wear mourning garments. Thus, she was able to prove that she was indeed being respectful of her husband.
There is great value in having funeral instructions clearly stated prior to one’s death, especially in places where unscriptural practices are common. Consider the example of Victor, a resident of Cameroon. He wrote down the program that was to be followed at his funeral. In his family there were many influential people belonging to a culture having strong traditions with respect to the dead, including the worship of human skulls. Since Victor was a respected member of the family, he knew that his skull was likely to be treated in this way. He therefore gave clear instructions on how Jehovah’s Witnesses should handle his funeral. This made the situation easier for his widow and his children, and a good witness was given in the community.
Avoid Imitating Unscriptural Customs
Some who have knowledge of the Bible have been afraid to stand out as different. To avoid persecution, they have tried to please their neighbors by giving the appearance of holding a traditional wake for the dead. While it is commendable to visit the bereaved so as to provide personal comfort, this does not require that a small funeral service be conducted at the home of the deceased every night prior to the actual funeral. Doing this may stumble observers, since it may give them the impression that the participants do not really believe what the Bible says about the condition of the dead.—1 Corinthians 10:32.
The Bible urges Christians to put the worship of God first in life and to make wise use of their time. (Matthew 6:33; Ephesians 5:15, 16) In some places, though, congregation activity has come to a standstill for a week or more because of a funeral. This problem is not unique to Africa. Regarding one funeral, a report from South America says: “Three Christian meetings had extremely low attendance. The field service was not supported for about ten days. Even people outside the congregation and Bible students were surprised and disappointed to see some of our brothers and sisters participating.”
In some communities, a bereaved family may invite a few close friends to their home for light refreshments after the funeral. But in many parts of Africa, hundreds who attend the funeral descend on the home of the deceased and expect a feast, where animals are often sacrificed. Some associated with the Christian congregation have imitated this custom, giving the impression that they are holding the customary feasts to appease the dead.
Funeral services conducted by Jehovah’s Witnesses do not place an expensive burden on the bereaved. So it should not be necessary to have a special arrangement for those present to give money to cover lavish funeral expenses. If poor widows cannot meet necessary expenses, others in the congregation will no doubt be glad to assist. If such help is inadequate, the elders may arrange to provide material assistance for worthy ones.—1 Timothy 5:3, 4.
Funeral customs do not always conflict with Bible principles. When they do, Christians are determined to act in harmony with the Scriptures.* (Acts 5:29) Although this may bring added tribulation, many servants of God can testify that they have met such tests successfully. They have done so with strength from Jehovah, “the God of all comfort,” and with the loving help of fellow believers who have comforted them in their tribulation.—2 Corinthians 1:3, 4.
Substitute names have been used in this article.
In some language groups and cultures the term “wake” is applied to a short visit to comfort the bereaved. Nothing unscriptural may be involved. See Awake! of May 22, 1979, pages 27-8.
Where funeral customs are likely to bring severe tests upon a Christian, elders can prepare baptism candidates for what may lie ahead. When meeting with these new ones to discuss questions from the book Organized to Accomplish Our Ministry, careful attention should be given to the sections “The Soul, Sin and Death” and “Interfaith.” Both of these have optional questions for discussion. Here is where elders can provide information about unscriptural funeral customs so that the baptism candidate knows what God’s Word requires of him should he be faced with such situations.
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Blessed for Their Firm Stand
Sibongili is a courageous Christian widow living in Swaziland. After the recent death of her husband, she refused to follow customs thought by many to appease the dead. For example, she did not shave the hair off her head. (Deuteronomy 14:1) Eight family members were angry about this and forcibly shaved her head. They also prevented Jehovah’s Witnesses from visiting the home to give Sibongili comfort. However, other individuals interested in the Kingdom message were happy to visit her with letters of encouragement written by the elders. On the day when Sibongili was expected to put on special mourning garments, something surprising happened. An influential member of the family convened a meeting to discuss her refusal to comply with traditional mourning customs.
Sibongili reports: “They asked if my religious convictions allowed me to express sorrow by wearing the black mourning gowns. After I had explained my position, they told me they were not going to force me. To my surprise, they all apologized for having manhandled me and for shaving my head against my will. All of them asked me to forgive them.” Later, Sibongili’s sister expressed her conviction that Jehovah’s Witnesses have the true religion, and she requested a Bible study.
Consider another example: A South African man named Benjamin was 29 years old when he heard about the sudden death of his father. At that time, Benjamin was the only Witness in his family. During the burial service, everyone was expected to file past the grave and throw a handful of soil onto the coffin.* After the burial, all immediate family members had their heads shaved. Since Benjamin did not share in these rituals, neighbors and family members predicted that he would be punished by the spirit of his dead father.
“Because I put my trust in Jehovah, nothing happened to me,” says Benjamin. Family members took note of how things turned out for him. In time, a number of them began studying the Bible with Jehovah’s Witnesses and got baptized in symbol of their dedication to God. And Benjamin? He entered the full-time evangelizing work. For the last few years, he has had the fine privilege of serving congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses as a traveling overseer.
Some may see no harm in throwing flowers or a handful of soil into a grave. A Christian, however, would avoid this practice if the community views it as a way of appeasing the dead or if it is part of a ceremony presided over by a minister of false religion.—See Awake! of March 22, 1977, page 15.